what began as a television company's project to promote Italian culture worldwide over the Internet has developed into an online university degree course.
The Italica project launched by the Italian state TV service RAI International has been given the legal status of an Open University-style degree course under the auspices of the Italian higher education ministry (MURST) and the University of Pisa.
Italica has been operating experimentally since last year on a private "intranet", and opens to the public in October. But it will probably be at least another year before degree students, who must be non-Italian residents, can enrol officially.
The project is trilingual in Italian, English and Spanish, having been originally conceived primarily for the large Italian-American community. The degree course will include interactive learning at the computer screen, email correspondence between students and tutors, and exams online. Personal identification codes and video conferences are among the measures being adopted to ensure bona fide participation by students.
Marco Santagata, Italica advisory board member, founder of the association of Italianists and professor of Italian literature at Pisa University's faculty of letters, claims credit for the idea of giving the project degree status. He said that with a potential public estimated at ten to 11 million he believed it would be the first project of its kind.
"I saw no reason why we could not create a virtual self-sufficient faculty with its own degree course in Italian language and culture," he said. "We are now promoting a consortium of 14 Italian universities which will help design courses and produce materials, although final degree certificates will be awarded by the University of Pisa." Professor Santagata, who will teach the Dante course, is working on the production of a virtual journey to hell seen through the eyes of the great poet.
The consortium hopes to receive course material contributions and other collaboration from universities including Reading, Harvard and Yale. Legal problems are blocking the formation of an international consortium and "superuniversity". Project staff say they have contacted 150 of the world's 500 Italian departments.
Costs to the student are expected to be minimal as Italica was established as a non-profit making cultural project, with the dual aim of catering for Italian communities abroad and spreading Italian language and culture. But a nominal enrolment fee might be introduced as a psychological incentive for students.
The academic consortium will be funded by MURST. RAI is financing its own initiative.
Students will be able to turn for help to the many worldwide Italian cultural centres, embassies, consulates and university Italian departments.
The first four courses will be on the Italian language, Dante, the Italian Renaissance and the novelist Svevo. The language course, at present being tested with apparent success at the University of Chicago, begins with a Lucio Dalla pop song video followed by a number of exercises based on the words of the song.